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REVIEW:  The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

REVIEW: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Dear Ms. Choo,

I’m very much a genre reader. It’s not that I have anything against the more literary-minded novels. It’s just that they’re not my thing, the way westerns and soulbonded lifemates aren’t my thing. But the premise of your debut intrigued me. A paranormal novel set in late 19th century Malaysia about a girl who has to marry a ghost? That is right up my alley.

the-ghost-bride-chooLi Lan’s family has seen better days. Not only has her father succumbed to his opium addiction, he has racked up numerous debts that will be their financial ruin. Then a rich family friend — who just happens to hold all the debts her father owes — makes a startling proposal: that Li Lan marry his only son. The catch? The son, Lim Tian Ching, is dead.

While such ghost marriages aren’t unheard of, the circumstances are unusual to say the least. The son isn’t a vengeful ghost whose spirit needs placating. Since Li Lan is very much alive, this isn’t a case of two recently deceased people being joined in matrimony posthumously. Li Lan would, in effect, have to live as a widow for the rest of her life.

I admit I initially was unsure about this book. I loved the depiction of Malacca in 1893. The culture felt alive and authentic to me. The set-up may seem familiar. A once-affluent family that’s fallen on hard times. A father who’s fallen prey to opium. A loyal servant who’s no-nonsense and acts like another mother. A heroine who’s over-educated and doesn’t know how to use her good looks to their full effect. An unwanted marriage to save the family. But the details make all the difference, and I thought this was a great example of how culture affects situations and relationships. Malaysia in the late 19th century is not the same as England during that time period, and characters living in one setting should not act like those living in the other.

Despite my love of the setting’s portrayal, I found the first half of the novel slow. In theory, it should have been right up my alley. Because Li Lan’s household is justifably hesitant to accept the offer to become a ghost bride, the Lim family exerts more pressure upon them to agree. As a result, the connection between Li Lan and Lim Tian Ching strengthens and his ghost begins to haunt her. This should be stressful and scary but I didn’t find it to be so. To be honest, I found it tedious at times.

Even Li Lan’s introduction to the spirit world was a slog for me. Again, I thought the portrayal of the spirit world was amazing. The descriptions of the ox-demons were vivid, and the hungry ghosts were creepy. But I felt no pull to keep reading and had to push on because I wanted to see where Li Lan’s journey would lead.

That turned out to be a good choice because while the first half proved to be an average read, the second half of the novel was anything but. This is that rare case where I felt like my effort to keep reading was rewarded in full. I’d actually say the structure reminds me vaguely of Code Name Verity, in which the second half is the payoff to the first but you need to read the first half in order to care about what happens in the second.

Maybe my ambivalence towards the first half can be partly explained by the romantic subplot from that section. Li Lan is trying to find a way out of the ghost marriage and her dead suitor who has taken to courting her from the afterlife. During her attempts to break the connection, she meets Lim Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, and is immediately attracted to him. In a sad twist of fate, Li Lan was originally betrothed to Tian Bai but with Tian Ching’s death, the cousin became heir, thus nullifying their engagement since a penniless bride would hardly make an appropriate wife.

Normally, I’d eat this up with a spoon. Circumstances conspired against them! He has to marry an appropriate woman. She’s haunted by a ghost.  More to the point, Tian Bai is a good man. Not only is he more attractive than his cousin, the disagreeable Lim Tian Ching, he’s smarter and more industrious. Yet their relationship left me cold. It seemed rote and followed all the expected tropes and pitfalls.

Then later in the novel, we’re introduced to Er Lang. People who know their Chinese folklore will recognize that name, but I won’t elaborate here since I think that spoils some plot developments. I adored the relationship between Li Lan and Er Lang. It was challenging yet dynamic. I thought it was more interesting than that of the relationship with Tian Bai, which I can only describe as instalovelust.

Despite my initial impressions, I’m glad I stuck with this book. It was absolutely worth the effort. The depiction of turn of the century Malaysia was wonderful and while I certainly wouldn’t consider the romantic subplot a strong point, I personally found the resolution immensely satisfying. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Heart of the Dragon’s Realm by Karalynn Lee

REVIEW: Heart of the Dragon’s Realm by Karalynn Lee

“Princess Kimri is used to betrayal. Her brother sold her to a king in exchange for swords to defend his lands. King Tathan’s reputation is as fierce as that of his mountain kingdom–where dragons are said to guard the castle walls–but the realms are unstable enough without angering the mountain-king, so Kimri reluctantly agrees to the union.

When she arrives in Helsmont, the king promises her a year of courtship before marrying–or parting ways. Before long, Kimri thinks she may find comfort, and perhaps eventually love, with the stoic king.

But the realms are more unsettled than Kimri realizes, and she soon finds herself caught in the middle of a war between the kingdoms. Can she count on her betrothed to take her side? Or will his loyalty to his kingdom come before his loyalty to her?”

Dear Ms. Lee,

I think this novella suffers from being either too long or too short. If it had concentrated more on a few things and told them well, I would have been more satisfied. Or if it had been expanded enough to cover the many threads better, that would have worked too. As it is, there is too much that is attempted with only a few things that I found completely done.

heart-of-the-dragons-realmThe story and heroine have a “Warprize” feel. Kimri has been bartered off by her brother – so she thinks – in an arranged marriage with the legendary king of a mountainous neighboring kingdom. Bitter at her fate, Kimri leaves her brother and homeland and begins her journey to her new life. Once there, she discovers that Tathan, the King, isn’t a bad man and might even be someone she could come to like. Kimri also appreciates the country’s custom of a year long engagement and is relieved to discover that if she finds the place and the man don’t suit her, she won’t be held to the betrothal.

And so begins her discovery of her new country. Kimri finds the freedom allowed her here to wander at will and the lack of courtly ceremony to be refreshing. She always felt constrained in her homeland but learns that in Helsmont women can achieve much more – even becoming soldiers. Together with the Prince of a neighboring hostile land who was captured trying to kidnap Kimri during her initial journey, she gets to know the people of her new homeland and their different customs.This is the aspect of the book that worked best for me. I especially enjoyed her lessons in the native “sword dancing.” Kimri also matures a bit as she realizes that when she becomes Queen, she’ll have much more power and responsibilities than she would have had in any of the lowland countries including her birth place.

“But where’s the romance?” I wondered. Tathan is off here, there and everywhere but near Kimri until past the halfway point of the story. The enemy Prince is with Kimri more than her betrothed which lead me to question whom she’d end up with. Then just as the Kimri and Tathan get closer and I’m thinking I’m going to see their relationship shown, the third act begins and they’re separated. My doubts of the hero’s i.d. reared up again and my frustration increased. The final pairing isn’t a sure thing until way too late for me.

When Tathan’s POV never appeared, I knew there was something that was supposed to be hidden about him – something I kinda guessed anyway. The secret isn’t that hard to figure out but then only adds to the “why wasn’t this developed more” feel I was left with. Kimri certainly takes to it without a whole lot of questions.

The world building is interesting, Kimri’s journey towards maturity is well developed but the lack of emphasis on the romance and the confusion I felt as to the hero’s ultimate identity make this one a mixed grade that evens out to a C- grade.

~Jayne

 

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